In a different lifetime, back in the 2000s, I was a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. We dressed like ‘70s rock stars, had a cheesy name and toured around India playing gigs. The pinnacle was playing at the Great Indian Rock festival in New Delhi for an audience of thousands. Most Indian bands like ours couldn’t dream of traveling overseas for gigs or tours. Those honors were relegated to more commercial Bollywood acts and the crème de la crème of rock, metal and jazz bands.
Fast forward to 2023; the world has changed and so have opportunities for Indian bands. When Chai Met Toast is one of India’s most popular indie acts. They are multilingual, tight as a drumhead, and have an innate gift for writing great hooks. They sell out venues in India, often drawing thousands of fans who sing along to most of their songs. Over the last few years, they’ve toured in the Middle East and the U.K., and played huge events like the Formula One Grand Prix in Singapore. They were slated to perform at South By Southwest, but that was called off due to COVID-19. Now they find themselves on the brink of their very first U.S. tour, starting right around the corner in Bushwick, Brooklyn on July 16.
Kishan John, the band’s manager, who is known for his long-term vision and planning, offered an explanation of the band’s increasingly frequent overseas tours. “People who started to come to our shows were pretty young then, in the early years of their careers,” said John over Zoom (the band formed in 2016). ”Those are the set of people who have eventually moved outside of the country and then spread the music. Then came Spotify sometime in early 2019, and the indie music scene suddenly had a rebirth. So that helped build our overseas audience.”
Ashwin Gopakumar (Vocals) and Achyuth Jaigopal (Guitar, Banjo), the founding members of When Chai Met Toast (WCMT), were also present on the Zoom call just a couple of days before leaving for the U.S.
Gopakumar had an explanation for the rise in their audience abroad. “After the advent of Spotify, anyone can discover anyone, anywhere. That has made touring feasible for a lot more independent artists who didn’t have label backing,” he said. “Also, there are a lot more Indians going abroad for work and studies. So it is definitely a much more global community now than it was before.”
Even in a shrinking world made smaller by social media, there is still something special in touring America and playing a gig in New York City. An audibly excited Jaigopal said, “it’s going to be a banger of a show. We are looking forward to it very much. I think it’s been in the works for at least a year and a half and it’s one hell of a feeling just going outside (India), playing your music and people singing back as loud as possible.” Gopakumar, who studied in the U.S. back in 2012, was more succinct when he exclaimed that his new mantra was “Brooklyn baby!”
“This gig was seven years in the making,” said John. “You can self-produce a tour anywhere else in the world but in the U.S. it’s not possible. We have a promoter or sponsor and there is a lot more collaboration. There are legalities, so we have to have an attorney there in the U.S. to apply for a performance visa and also put a cost of assurance or a guarantee. I’m not exactly sure what that dollar value is, but for every person that’s traveling, the promoter is paying a certain amount to the government and then acquiring a P3 visa permit.”
The guarantee in the case of WCMT is their robust social media following, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands. As John attests, this following, along with some nifty calculations using geographical analytics from YouTube, Spotify and Instagram, allows them to accurately predict how many people will attend their gig. This draws in promoters looking for a sure thing. “There is a reasonable popularity on this end, which helps us make money well past the break-even point,” said John. “We have a country where there are, let’s say, 3,000 or 4,000 unique listeners on a monthly basis. We could confidently say that we could at least sell about 200 tickets. That’s about 5% of our unique listener base in that country. So that power is with us now.”
Their show at The Sultan Room in Brooklyn has just sold out, with around 300 people jumping on the tickets, fulfilling John’s clear plan of action.
Gopakumar and Jaigopal were quite optimistic about the future of Indian bands touring overseas, especially in the U.S. “[Punjabi musician] Diljit Dosanjh performed at Coachella last year, so I think that’s going to be a start of a trend,” said Jaigopal. “A lot of Indian artists are headlining and playing good slots at some of the major festivals. Indian audiences are something that festivals would want to target. I only see this rising.”
Gopakumar ended our interaction with a sage thought: “A lot of Indian (origin) artists who are from the U.S. are coming to India as well,” he said, “ They already have an American audience. We can bring an Indian audience so there might be a collaboration opportunity there. So I think overseas tours are going to increase exponentially because of the inclusion of cultures.”
US TOUR DATES
You can buy tickets on the When Chai Met Toast Website
15 JULY 2023 – VIRGINIA – DULLES SPORTSPLEX
16 JULY 2023 – NEW YORK – THE SULTAN ROOM
28 JULY 2023 – SAN JOSE – EVOLUTION NIGHT CLUB
30 JULY 2023 – LOS ANGELES – 7 KINGDOMS